Out of the Bubble! Europe’s future is decided in cities and regions

Jo Leinen

Jo Leinen

In our daily life our immediate neighbourhood is our focal point. We might have multiple identities, and consider ourselves as nationals of our Member State and as Europeans, but we live in our city, in our community, and our region. Decision taken at the European level undeniably have a great impact on our lives — though, what we directly experience, are not the decisions taken in Brussels and Strasbourg, but their implementation in our neighbourhood. To name just a few examples: The transition towards a carbon-free economy can only be successful, if implemented at the local level, e.g. with innovative infrastructure projects and the development of renewable energy. Likewise, it falls upon the cities to provide for a large number of migrants and refugees and to integrate them into the community.

For the emergence of a feeling of common ownership cooperation, dialogue and the exchange of best practices and experiences between cities and regions across Europe are indispensable. Indeed, a plethora of connections has existed for a long time. Be it official twin city programmes, European associations of cities and regions, cooperation of research and educational facilities, and cultural exchange. Especially the science and cultural sectors have a long European history. European culture and science are not developing because of the political unification in Europe, but, to the contrary, political unification became possible because European culture and science had already been existing for centuries. Likewise, political unification can neither replace nor force the cultural process without which the European Union would only be a technocratic project. Funding and programmes like Erasmus+, the European capital of culture and not least the lifting of physical and non-physical barriers between Member States can support the emergence of a common European identity, but the initial impulse must come from society, which manifests itself most visibly and concentrated in our cities and regions.

This is why “A soul for Europe” is so important for our common European future. As Volker Hassemer writes in his contribution, the approach of europe.basic, a three-year long programme, is a constructive one. Instead of merely influencing the EU’s political institutions, the initiative aims at taking on responsibility for the European Union at the local level, and thus to live Europe daily. The EU’s “urban agenda” is directed at supporting the economic, ecologic, social, and (unfortunately to a much lower extent) cultural development of cities. It is evidently a much needed initiative. However, for growing together, an agenda by urban areas for Europe can achieve more than any EU programme could ever do.

The initiative comes at the right moment. The European Union finds itself in the deepest crisis in its history. Economic and social turmoil, the rise of extremism and populism, external threats and an unprecedented influx of migrants and refugees left European solidarity in jeopardy. Diverging views on the fundaments of the European Union became visible in the management of the refugee situation, the breach of the EU’s fundamental values in several Member States and the gap between the Eurozone, determined to deepen itself, and some Member States’ governments advocating a purely intergovernmental European Union.

We risk to drift apart, which makes it necessary to take a step back and ask the fundamental question on what the basis for the European project is. What binds us together and what do we expect from the European Union? To build a more democratic, stronger, and more successful Union, we need first and foremost to strengthen its fundament and build a new European consensus.

In March 2017, the European Commission published a White Paper framing out five scenarios for the Union’s development until 2025. These reach from a purely economic endeavour to a much deeper Union with shared values and policies. It is now up to the European citizens’ to decide, which path to take. For that, the debate has to leave the Euro-bubble and to take place in and between as many cities and regions as possible. If the future of our Union is only debated within the EU-institutions, parliaments, and expert circles, we will end up with technocratic answers not fit to answer a cultural question: Do we, as Europeans, have a shared destiny? Are we willing to stand together because of a shared culture, or just as long as it serves the very own interest? Do we only want to cooperate or be united?

A Soul for Europe and europe.basic help to close this gap. They open the debate, adding new perspectives, which do not focus on cost-benefit-thinking, but on local every-day experiences. Europe.basic connects the very key-players, which will ultimately decide on the future of the European Union: the European citizens in their natural habitat.

Jo Leinen, President of the European Movement International (EMI), has been a Member of the European Parliament since 1999. He is currently the Chairman of the EP Delegation for the relations with China. He was Chair of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety 2009–2012 and Chair of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs 2004–2009. Since 2011, he has been serving as President of the European Movement International. Before becoming an MEP, he was Member of the Committee of the Regions 1995–1999 and Minister of the Environment for the federal state of Saarland 1985–1994. Jo Leinen is Honorary President of the Union of European Federalists (UEF). He studied law and economics.